What Are the Main Differences Between Civil and Criminal Court?

Federal, state, and local courts across the country hear cases nearly every day. But not all courts hear the same types of cases. They don’t all operate the same way, either. Different courts exist for different purposes. And of course, there are multiple differences between civil and criminal court.

When a person says they are going to court, the obvious question is, “why?” It is one thing if the person is involved in a civil case. It’s an entirely different ball game if the case is criminal. There are vast differences between civil and criminal court covering everything from purposes to procedures and outcomes.

The Courts Have Different Purposes

Civil and criminal courts have different purposes. Civil court exists to settle private disputes between individuals based on what the law says. A car accident victim might sue another driver who caused the accident. The dispute between the two is a private matter. But civil lawsuits can still involve government entities.

OSHA might sue an employer for not maintaining proper safety equipment in the workplace. But because OSHA regulations are not part of the criminal code, the company’s actions do not constitute a crime. Therefore, the dispute between the two parties is a private matter.

Criminal court settles claims made by the state against an individual accused of committing a crime. Murder is considered a crime against both the victim and society at large. It is no longer a personal matter because it affects all of society.

The Courts Have Different Procedures

Next up are procedures. Civil cases are litigated while criminal cases are prosecuted. In civil cases, plaintiffs have the responsibility of demonstrating that the claims they make against defendants are most likely true based on the balance of evidence.

There are no plaintiffs in criminal court. There are simply prosecutors and defendants. Criminal defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty by the prosecution. Therefore, the burden of proof lies on prosecutors. They need to prove a defendant is guilty. The defendant does not have to prove his innocence.

The Courts Have Different Outcomes

The most visible difference between civil and criminal court are the outcomes of both. There are no guilty or innocent parties in civil court. There are only winners and losers. When a civil court decides a case, it renders a judgment based on liability. Moreover, courts rarely get involved in enforcing the judgments they render.

Judgment Collectors is a Utah collection agency based in Salt Lake City. They specialize in helping clients collect monetary judgments. They explain that civil courts can assist with enforcement efforts when additional court actions are necessary, but they have no power to impose any particular type of enforcement against the losing party.

In criminal court, there are no winners or losers per se. There are only defendants who are acquitted, found innocent, or found guilty. If found guilty, a defendant is subject to sentencing and enforcement by the court. The court passes sentence and then compels the penal system to enforce it.

A note of special interest is that a criminal defendant can also be subject to civil litigation following their criminal case. The purpose of following up with a civil trial would be to establish liability based on the defendant’s actions. If that liability is proven in court, the defendant could be required to pay a monetary award.

Next time you hear someone saying they are going to court, do not assume anything. The person could be facing either a lawsuit or criminal charges. The particular type of case makes a big difference.

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